Free state Okmeydanı

The around two hundred young men and women around a burning barricade in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Okmeydanı joke around, the atmosphere is relaxed. But then an aerosol in the fire explodes, BAM, and the group scatters. Right under the surface, the tension is high. The battle can begin any moment.

It’s Thursday evening, 13 March. The day after Berkin Elvan was burried. Berkin is the latest victim of the massive anti-government protests last summer. He went out to get bread for his family in June 2013, was hit in the head by a teargas canister shot by the police, slipped into a coma and died 269 days later, early on Tuesday morning.

Tens of thousands of people joined the funeral on Wednesday. It was perfectly peaceful, until after the little boy was laid to rest: then the police decided it was enough with the massive mourning over the loss of a boy because of brutal police violence, and started the violence again. Two people died. A policeman in the eastern province of Dersim/Tunceli suffered from a heart attack, reportedly due to too much teargas, and passed away. And a young man, Burak Can Karamanoğlu, was shot.

Vague circumstances

The tension Thursday night was all about the second death, of Burak Can Karamanoğlu. The circumstances around his death are vague, and the Istanbul governor plainly claimed: ‘A youngster identified as Burak Can Karamanoğlu died after a verbal scuffle between two groups turned into a fight in which firearms were used’. Later the DHKP-C, a leftist group designated as ‘terrorist’ by Turkey and also held responsible for the attack on the American embassy in Ankara in February 2012, claimed responsibility for Karamanoğlu’s death.

The murder happened in Okmeydanı, the neighbourhood where Berkin Elvan lived and died. Burak Karamanoğlu was not from Okmeydanı himself, but from Kasimpasa, a conservative area not too far from Okmeydanı where PM Erdogan spent part of his childhood and where he still has a solid supporter base. Okmeydanı, at least some parts of it, is known as an area where the DHKP-C has many supporters. In short: when Kasimpasa and Okmeydanı get together, trouble is likely, especially when tension is running as high in the country as now and even more so when from both sides somebody lost his life.

Several blockades

Curious about what would happen and about how present the DHKP-C really is in Okmeydanı, I took a cab, together with a photographer friend, to the neighbourhood. We passed a few policemen on a corner and walked down the road, towards a fire, in the middle of the Piyalipasa area. There were several blockades, the biggest one in the middle of a road: two burning piles of rubbish, and a huge door standing up, with the text ‘Berkin Elvan Blockade Front’ on it, painted in red. There were some two hundred men and women around the blockade, and down and up the road were two more blockades.

Against who? Against the police and against ‘fascists’, they told us. ‘Fascists’ is an often used word in Turkey, mostly referring to a group you radically disagree with. For these young people, the fascists are AKP-supporters from other area’s than theirs, this evening more specifically those from Kasimpasa. ‘We are defending our neighbourhood’, a 18-year old man told me. ‘You know our organization, don’t you?’, he asked, pointing at the shutters behind him, DHKC in huge red letters painted on it.

Red clothes

We were welcomed by the youngsters, almost everybody was willing to talk and behaved friendly. But during the evening, the atmosphere got more tensed. The group heard that there were ‘fascists’ coming from Kasimpasa, trying to enter Okmeydanı. The ‘fascists’ had to be prevented from entering against all costs.

The preparations against the ‘invasion’ started. All of a sudden a big part of the group had their faces covered, mostly with red cloths – the symbol of ‘Halk Cephesi’, People’s Front. Then I saw a whole lot of Efes beer bottle’s turned into molotov cocktails. A few people were holding wooden sticks, others started breaking big stones into pieces.

Molotov cocktail
Molotov cocktail

Nobody had any problem with the presence of foreign journalists. But that didn’t make me feel particulary safe. Neither did the prospect of a group of opponents coming from Kasimpasa who just lost a friend and may want some sort of revenge. I could only guess the exact identity of the people who were apparently on the way, but both most logical guesses were not comforting me.

Die hard AKP-supporters are not fond of foreign press, as they believe the propaganda of their leader Erdogan that there is an international conspiracy going on against Turkey (= the government) and that the foreign press is part of that conspiracy. If it were ultra nationalist on the way, it would make the prospect worse, since they are known to be (very) violent. On top of that, both groups are always protected by the police, so any help from that side was not to be expected either.

On twitter there were reports of violence in the area around Okmeydanı, but it was impossible to tell which reports were true and which were not. People asked me on twitter what was going on, but all I could say was that I was safe, and that there was tension but no clashes and no groups from other neighbourhoods. I had no clue what was going on in the areas around us and it was too dangerous to check it out. A weird feeling: were we in the eye of a storm? And if so, how were were ever going to get out?

‘It has begun’

Then slowly the trouble started. A small group of young men ran towards the corner where a police vehicle was standing and threw fireworks and one molotov. The others applauded. A bit later from a street behind us a group of young men came running, and it seemed police were reacting with teargas in the streets that we couldn’t see. ‘Basladi’, the group said, ‘it has begun’.

As I walked around trying to assess the situation, I saw kids behind windows watching the scenes, women sitting on the stairs outside their homes supporting the youth of their neighbourhood, and people throwing cardboard boxes from their houses to contribute to the burning blockade.

I asked a young man: ‘I’m not sure what is happening. Who started the fight? You, or the police? The police didn’t shoot our way, right, so why throw the molotovs? I don’t understand.’ He shrugged his shoulders: ‘Catisma’, he said, ‘Clash’, adding nothing else. It didn’t matter to him: maybe the police started, maybe not. And what if the police didn’t start?, he seemed to be saying. I concluded: in this area, the DHKP-C rules, in cooperation with the PKK. They don’t defend themselves against authorities, they actively fight them.

I didn’t wait for the moment the teargas would be shot in our direction. Via the side streets, the gas was coming to us anyway, my eyes and throath were suffering. A young woman sprayed a mix of milk and some other things in my face to stop the burning feeling. It helped. We asked some people the safest way out. Walk down the road, keep going down down until you reach the main road. Then you are out. And that’s what we did.

A more detailed report with many pictures and a video is available at Beaconreader! I report there at least on a weekly basis, and you get accesss to the stories for only 5USD per month. For that reasonable price you also get access to all other Beacon writers! 

And here is a piece by social anthropologist Jenny White, explaining why it is so scary that different groups start fighting each other on the streets. Follow her on twitter!  

A basket stuffed with rotten apples

The corruption affair is still shaking Turkey. It’s a week ago now that the sons of three Ministers and some businessmen, among whom the filthy rich real estate magnate Ali Agaoglu, were taken into custody, suspected of corruption. That was followed by a wave of policemen getting fired: the government sees the affair as a political game and aneffort to damage the power of the government and the position of Turkey in the world.

Problematic of course, for the AKP. The party won its first elections in 2002, partly because of the promise it would deal with the wid-spread corruption in Turkey. This message was even in the name of the party, which is officially not AKP but AK Party, with AK meaning ‘pure’, ‘clean’.

In that year, 2002, Turkey was at 64th place on the corruption list of Transparency International, together with Thailand: a worse score than China but just a bit better than Senegal. During the next general elections, in 2007, Turkey was still at 64th place, but was doing slightly better during the elections of 2011: place 61. In 2013 Turkey made it to53rd place.

A huge traffic fine

These are not hard statistics about how much corruption there really is in a country, the ranking is based on ‘perception’ and is thus about how much corruption people experience. In that respect, it’s going in the right direction in Turkey. But there are different kinds of corruption. It can very well be that the people experience less corruption because it occurs less on a level that bothers or helps people. You don’t have to slip some money to a civil servant anymore to get a passport quickly, and the days that you can pay a cop some money so he will tear up a huge traffic fine are also over. But what if the corruption has removed itself to the level at which a normal citizen doesn’t notice it? To the highest posts in the government, to the richest businessmen?

I think that’s exactly what’s going on. Turkey has turned into a ‘constructocracy’ over the last decade: politics is dominated by the construction sector. With amazing speed everywhere in the country TOKI complexes have appeared: groups of concrete apartment blocks, often on the outskirts of cities, for middle class incomes. TOKI is a government project and there are unimaginable amounts of money at stake. And TOKI is only a small part of the building fever of the AKP government.

Not a soul

Two whole new cities will be built on the coast north of Istanbul, a sort of second Bosporus will be dug in the western part of the city, the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus has started and there will be a third airport, and the metro tunnel under the Bosporus was opened recently. Add to that the dozens, no hundreds of shopping malls appearing everywhere in the country, including where I live, in Diyarbakir – not a soul comes to any of the shops and only the fast food restaurants in the malls seem to do good business, but who cares, the leaders of the constructocracy got their money.

And the sons of which ministers are now suspects in the corruption scandal? Those of the Ministers of Environment and Urbanisation, of Interior Affairs and of Economy.

It is exaclty this overload of construction works that triggered the protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities in the spring and summer of this year: the construction bosses have, directed by the AKP, taken over the cities, and people are fed up with it. The motto of a big demonstration a few days ago in Istanbul made that clear again. It was: ‘The city is ours!’ But also this was, until now, not really linked to corruption, which doesn’t directly affect people’s daily lives like the everlasting and immense construction sites, the disappearance of parks and cultural heritage and the total lack of power that the people have over the development of their cities.

‘I am AKP’

So, this scandal must be a blow to the AKP? The party that said it would fight corruption has now totally fallen out of grace with its supporter base? Well, no, I don’t think so, actually. The local elections of 30 March 2014 will make things more clear, but for now it seems many AKP voters still support their party.

A few days ago I read an article about reactions to the scandal of AKP voters in the daily Radikal. The owner of a small shop said that not the whole government can be blamed for what’s happening: ‘There are rotten apples in every basket’. But what also drew my attention is that he didn’t say that he voted for the AKP, but ‘I am AKP’. For him the AKP is not just a party to vote for, but an identity.

And I think that counts for many AKP voters. They are often members of a group that was close to invisible before the AKP came to power: devout Muslims who were ignored by the Turkish establishment and who had no political or economic power. The AKP changed that. The economic policies of the party brought these people and the Anatolian cities they live in (Kayseri, Gaziantep, Konya, Denizli, etc) prosperity, they got more religious freedom and the old establishment (among whom the staunchly anti-religious army) were sidelined. These people identify themselves with the party, and see the leaders of it as sincere Muslims who live by Islamic morals and only want the best for the country.

Sixth ship

It’s quite something, I reckon, to then admit that there are not just a few rotten apples in the AKPbasket, but that the beautiful shiny healthy apples are actually the exception. That it’s not even worth the trouble to take the untouched apples out, because the many rotten ones in the basket no doubt give the good ones stains too. To admit that the religiousness of the AKP is just keeping up appearances, and that under the surface it’s all only about money and power.

Why would it be that Erdogan doesn’t clean up his government by sacking the tainted ministers and state that he will continue with a clean team? Why does he fire the cops that are involved in this investigation, and why does he propose a law that arranges that policemen from now on need permission from their superior for any corruption investigation, even if that superior is the subject of it? Is it possible the current scandal is only the tip of the iceberg? And would the sixth (!) ship the son of Erdogan recently bought shatter on that iceberg?

Homeless and disregarded

And imagine that the AKP voter does open his eyes, then where can he go, politically? There is no alternative. The biggest opposition party, CHP, represents the old elite that looks down on AKP voters, and is not even for CHP voters a real choice because they lack an alternative. The smaller ultra nationalist and also religious MHP is an option for some AKP voters, but they are too nationalistic for others, and they are also too small to break the power of the AKP. The pro-Kurdish BDP is still regarded by many Turks as close to terrorism, and the party is also not attractive for AKP voters because it doesn’t care much about religion.

And see how this corruption in Turkey starts touching the daily lives of normal, average Turks again. Another group in society that, when it has the guts to open its eyes, becomes politically homeless, and doesn’t get represented but is on the contrary deeply disregarded.

With your head up high

Sarai Sierra is dead. She was on a trip to Istanbul, her first trip outside her own country, the US. A 33 year old woman, a wife, and a mother of two boys. She loved photography and that’s why she came to the city. She went missing on 21 January, and on Saturday her body was found on the historic peninsula in Istanbul, not far from many tourist highlights. Killed with a blow on the head.

It’s quite confronting, to say the least. I have been living in Istanbul for more than five years now, and I have never felt unsafe. Not late at night outside, not alone on the street, not anywhere at any time. And that’s not me being naïve. Data from, for example, the International Crime Victims Survey show that Istanbul is way safer than megacities of comparable size and development, like Rio de Janeiro or Lagos.

Sarai Sierra
Sarai Sierra

But what’s the use of saying Istanbul is a safe city when a woman was just murdered brutally? Statistics don’t mean anything when it comes to personal situations. And the scary thing is that it can lead you to the wrong conclusions. Oh yes there are people asking why she was travelling alone, what she was doing abroad without her family, and so on. Speculations that only suggest one thing: that she had it coming. I couldn’t object to that more fiercely.

It’s not that Sarai was killed despite Istanbul being a safe city. I think we shouldn’t look at this from the Istanbul perspective, or compare Istanbul statistics to those of other places in the world. We should look at the world as a whole. It’s just not a safe place for women. Our physical strength is hardly ever enough to defend ourselves against men who want to harm us. So we get beaten up, we get raped, we get assaulted, we get murdered. That is the risk every woman on this planet lives with every day. Some places may have a higher risk of getting harmed, but being a woman is enough to be at risk always and everywhere.

Pippa Bacca

Prompted by what happened to Sarai Sierra, two people have told me to ‘be careful’. I find that sweet, but strange too. I wouldn’t know how to be careful enough to make sure I won’t get beaten up, raped, assaulted, or murdered. For many women, staying at home is not even going to help – I don’t have to tell you about domestic violence do I?

Even stranger are the people who say that ‘we would not allow this to happen again after Pippa’. Pippa Bacca was an Italian artist who was raped and murdered in Turkey in 2008; read her story here. It is so naive to think that our collective shock and anger or even campaigns and whatever can make these horrors stop, and to think that Pippa could have been the last. Of course she wasn’t, and Sarai was not the last either – how many women have been murdered since Sarai’s life came to this cruel end?

So what can we do, when it’s not ‘be careful’, and when the reality is that violence against women will always be there? Accept it? Of course not. I opt for being realistic and not giving  in. Realize that being a woman automatically means being at risk, but don’t let your choices be in any way defined by it. Be a woman with all the mental strength you have. Whatever happens, go through life with your head up high.

May Sarai Sierra rest in peace.

An identity that endangers their life

‘Could it be the work of one individual?’ That is the question that occupied my thoughts in recent days. Four elderly Armenian women have been brutally attacked in Istanbul. And whatever the outcome of the police investigation – if any – there is one thing I am sure of: it is not the work of an individual.

The facts: in early December, an 87 year old woman of Armenian descent was found battered in her apartment. She was hospitalized for two weeks and lost vision in one of her eyes. On December 28, Maritsa Küçük, aged 84, was found stabbed to death in her apartment in the same neighbourhood, Samatya. At the beginning of January, on the day the Apostolic Christmas is celebrated, another woman of Armenian origin was saved from three individuals who attempted to kidnap her. And last week, 80 year old Sultan Aykar was attacked in her home, also in the Samatya neighbourhood. Samatya is known for its Armenian population, and it also has an important Armenian church.

Traitors

The police have so far not made any arrests. It could be that the attacks have been carried out by one person alone, and that it was a coincidence that the victims were Armenian. Even if that is the case, though, that is not the whole story. From which ever angle you look at it, this is again a tragedy for the Armenian community in Turkey. Also if the perpetrator(s) didn’t mean to specifically attack Armenians, this affects the community as a whole.

A community that has been treated as second class citizens for decades now in this country, and that is seen by many as  ‘traitors’. Kids learn it in school: Armenians are the enemies ‘from within’. It all dates back to more than a century ago, during the First World War. Armenians aspired to have their own country, and being Christians, just like Russians, who were fighting the Ottomans, they were collectively seen as enemies. We all know about the genocide that followed.

That’s what Turkey does to ‘enemies from within’: they are considered outcasts, they are never seen as full members of Turkish society and sometimes, they get killed, and then many people don’t really care. This month six years ago, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered, for the very same reason these women are being attacked now: being Armenian. The difference of course is that Dink spoke out and these women were just leading quiet lives, but their identity is the same. An identity that endangers their life.

Indifference 

Not only the hatred against Armenians is deeply rooted in this country, also the indifference towards the way they are treated is. That was shown in another way this week. PM Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet and replaced four ministers. One of the those he sacked was Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin. He was not what you call an asset for the country (read about him in this blog post), so that in itself was good news. But who was he replaced with?

The new Interior Minister is Muammer Güler. He was the governor of Istanbul in 2007. Yes, when Hrant Dink was killed. He was one of the officials who ignored the clear threat to Hrant Dink’s life. He became an MP after that, which effectively closed off any serious investigation into his responsibility for Dink’s death because he got parliamentary immunity. And now he is being promoted to minister.

Don’t be surprised if also these attacks on Armenian women will not be thorougly investigated.

Sneijder to Galatasaray ‘transfer of the century’

ISTANBUL – It’s the ‘transfer of the century’, according to the big Turkish sports paper Fanatik. Competitor FotoMac brings the news too and adds that ‘it’s not a joke but reality’ and that Sneijder is ‘very excited’.

SNEİJDER
SNEİJDER

Many normal newspapers also report the transfer of the Dutch star player to the Istanbul club Galatasaray on their front pages. The biggest Turkish TVchannel NTV blew a passing remark by Sneijder that he ‘loves big games and wants to play against Besiktas’ out of proportion: ‘Sneijders’ first statement is for Besiktas!’ Besiktas, together with Galatasaray and Fenerbahce at the top of Turkish soccer, is second in the competition, Galatasaray is in the leading position.

When the news broke on Sunday, Sneijder immediately became the most debated subject among Turkish twitter users, with the ‘hashtag’ WelcomeToGalatasarayWesleySnijder. And on Monday morning ‘Sneijder’ is still the most popular subject on the micro blogging site.

Sweet messages

Besides the news about Sneijder himself, his spouse Yolanthe also makes it into the papers. She wrote in Turkish on twitter: ‘Thanks for your sweet messages!’ which turned out to be enough for a news article, of course with picture.

Sports paper Fanatik will make it a Sneijder week. The front page promises a Wesley Sneijder poster on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and Thursday a picture album in two takes. They start by showing Sneijders’ Galatasaray shirt, which they claim ‘is ready!’.

Good friend

Galatasaray is doing well in the Turkish competition: they lead the list with 33 points from 18 games. Sneijder, captain of the Dutch national team, undoubtedly has been in touch about his transfer to Galatasaray with his good friend Dirk Kuijt, deputy captain, who signed a contract with Fenerbahce last year. That club is doing less well, even though Kuijt often scores: they are currently in fourth place.

Wesley Sneijder will come to Istanbul on Monday afternoon to sign his contract. At 15.30, writes FotoMac. There will no doubt be a huge group of fans waiting to welcome him at the airport.

Turkey gets new church for first time

ISTANBUL – In Istanbul, for the first time in the almost 90 year old history of the republic, a new church will be built. The municipality of Istanbul has given its permission, and the church, which will belong to the Suryani community, will take about three years to build. Turkish media reported that on Monday.

The church will be built on a site where, up until the nineteen sixties a chapel and a cemetery of the Suryani’s were in use. They will be restored.

In Turkey it is difficult to officially establish a church, partly because of the high level of suspicion of Christian churches. There have been court cases going on for years between the state and several religious minorities, among others the Armenian and Greek Orthodox. The Suryani’s have been entangled in one of the most notorious cases, which centres on  the ownership of land around the famous Mor Gabriel monastery in the Southeast of Turkey.

Some ten thousand Suryani’s live in Istanbul. It is the second biggest (Christian) religious minority in the city, after the Armenians.

New Gezi Park

You know the Burger King at the corner of Taksim Square and Istiklal Boulevard? Of course you do; visit Istanbul once and you know where to find it. When I pass that spot and look up, I always wish they would tear down that whole building. It’s ugly, and what’s more, it blocks the view of the beautiful church behind it – maybe that’s why it was put there in the first place, who knows? That would be where I would start the transformation of Taksim Square.

The municipality has begun the actual transformation of Taksim Square this week. Unfortunately, they started quite differently to what I had in mind. They started chopping down trees. On the other end of the square to where Istiklal begins, there is a small park, Gezi Park, and the mayor decided it has to be replaced by a shopping mall. As if that is what people are crying out for!

Immens field

I would make Gezi Park bigger. You know what? I think I would let it cover the whole of the square. And when I say the whole, I mean the whole. Including all the streets that surround the square. All park. The streets go underground, so we get rid of the terrible smell and exhaust gasses. The Republic monument that is now at the side of the square would be in the middle of New Gezi Park. Around it an immense field, where people can gather to celebrate national holidays and to protest at whatever they like.  No tear gas allowed.

Around that central field and the monument, I picture outdoor seating. Some of it just for tea, some of it to have a bite or a nice dinner, some of it to have beer, wine and raki. We’d sit there in summer and in winter too, because outside life is the Turkish way. There’d be music, but silence too. There would be several children’s playgrounds, of course. And benches to sit on, grass to lie down on. Till late at night, we would not hear traffic, but the sound of backgammon being played.

Wild dreams

It’s unrealistic of course. I’m no city planner. I’m just a citizen of Istanbul (well, partly I am, since I have moved to Diyarbakir for the time being) who happens to hate Taksim Square the way it is, and sometimes dreams about another reality. The sad thing is, all these Istanbullites who have their fantasies about Istanbul’s central square as well, have never ever been heard by the municipality. In a classical Turkish autocratic way, the new square was designed without asking the citizens anything. Their wild dreams about the square should have been heard, and taken into account.

The new square will have no park at all. It will be even more of a concrete hell than it is today. The entrances to the square will be smaller, according to some to make it more difficult for (protesting) crowds to reach the square. The rights of pedestrians, who should have been the most important group in the minds of the designers who redesign such an important city square, are hardly considered.

I’m not sure how long it will take to reconstruct Taksim. It will probably be a construction site for months to come. With a result that makes no citizen happy.

These women don’t choose… between Istanbul and Amsterdam!

Move to Istanbul? Or stay in Amsterdam after all? Aygül, Cigdem, Mine and Ebru decided not to choose, but live their lives in both cities!

(These are not the pictures used in ELLE, these were provided by the interviewed women themselves.)

She remembers exactly how it was twenty five, thirty years ago. Her parents would buy plane tickets to Turkey months in advance. And on the day of travel, the whole family went with them from the small eastern-Dutch town of Westerveld to Schiphol airport, to wave them goodbye.

Aygül Sonkaya (32) sometimes thinks about it whenever she arrives at or leaves from Schiphol again. ‘Of course I plan my trips in advance as well, but not months in advance, and it often happens that I buy a ticket online in the morning and fly the same day.’

Aygül lives in Amsterdam, but also in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul. Every three, four weeks she travels between the two cities. Choose between the two? She would never consider that. Aygül: ‘I have both identities in me and I want to feel, to experience them both. That is only possible if I don’t restrict myself to either Amsterdam or Istanbul.’

Aygül Sonkaya

Her own company makes it possible: she wanted her own advertising agency, and decided that Istanbul was a better location for it than Amsterdam. Aygül: ‘In the Netherlands, the advertising market is full and the economy is very slow. In Turkey the economy keeps on growing and there is much more development going on in the advertising business. But it’s a small world and it’s not easy to find a place in it. My business partner and I had to find a way to compete, and we do that by offering European quality for a good price. In practice that means that we do all the production, like making video footage, in Istanbul, because the production costs are low. The post-production is done in Amsterdam. Clients love it, rushing off to the Netherlands for montage and final touches. And me too!’

Every time she comes to Amsterdam, she has a feeling of relief, she says. ‘In Amsterdam I feel free. As a woman you don’t have to be constantly aware of your attitude and behaviour, like in Istanbul. The Netherlands has no class society, everybody is equal and I can’t live without that feeling.’ But it would be boring to only live in the Netherlands, she thinks: ‘Istanbul gives out so much energy. I need that too.’

Aygül is far from being the only young Turkish-Dutch woman who refuses to choose between Istanbul and Amsterdam. Who found a place to live in both cities, and who planned their work just right so it can just continue wherever they are, and who pack their suitcases again every few weeks to fly either east or west. There are no statistics, but if you ask around, you find one example after another. About migration itself of course there are statistics: in 2010 more people than ever moved from the Netherlands to Turkey: 2607 to be precise. 1569 of them were born in Turkey, the rest were born in the Netherlands and are either fully Dutch or have one or two Turkish parents.

‘Choosing would feel like a hindrance’

Cigdem Senel (33) is a good example too. The interview with her was to take place in Istanbul, but suddenly a text message came: ‘Sorry, I’m flying to Amsterdam today, can we do the interview when I get back?’ We decide to do the interview by phone so as not to miss the deadline. She gives her Dutch mobile number and a few days later she elaborates about her life in two cities.

Cigdem was brought up in a cosmopolitan environment. She was born in Amsterdam, lived in the North-Turkish province of Ordu from age five to sixteen, returned to the Netherlands, enrolled in an international school and built a colourful social life. ‘My father’, she says, ‘was an international furniture removalist. When we lived in turkey, we often went to Holland. And we travelled through the whole of Europe when we were on holidays.’

Cigdem Senel

She studied in Amsterdam and England, worked as a project coordinator for the Amsterdam municipality and was often in Istanbul, even more so after she found love there some five years ago. Coincidentally she came in touch with an American firm selling biological food supplements and energy drinks that wanted to open a branch in Turkey, starting from their office in Amsterdam. The perfect combination and Cigdem took the opportunity immediately: ‘I spend most of my time in Istanbul, but go to Amsterdam often, mainly for meetings and training. Of course, the travelling is tiring sometimes, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. If I had to choose one of the cities, it would feel like a hindrance.’

Cigdem likes the Netherlands because it’s quiet. ‘Amsterdam is a big village, I feel safe and sound there. ButI can’t be there too long: Holland is so structured and predictable. In Amsterdam, you don’t have to make an effort to exist. In Istanbul you do, nothing is certain there, it’s so dynamic and gives out so much energy. That is great and I couldn’t live without it. In Amsterdam I enjoy the canals, the small streets, I love to cycle, and Holland is so green.’

She explains the interaction: her life suits her personality, and at the same time her personality is shaped by the life she leads. ‘I don’t really plan my life, I only know I don’t want to be in one place. I want to be open to whatever comes my way, I want both rest and energy, and that’s what I have now.’

The urge to live in Istanbul

The differences between Amsterdam and Istanbul and between the Netherlands and Turkey are big. Istanbul has some 16 million inhabitants, Amsterdam less than 1 million. The average age of Turkey’s population is 28, in the Netherlands just under forty. The Dutch economy is very slow, the Turkish economy grew the last couple of years by at least five percent per year. For many Dutch people with Turkish roots, these differences give them just the last push to dare to move to Turkey.

Besides that, both cities are only three hours flying time from each other, the price of tickets keeps going down, and the cost of living in Istanbul compares favourably to that in Amsterdam. In short: no need to choose any longer. Life as a city hopper has become easy, now when the number of self-employed people is increasing.

Mine Önsöz

That’s all great for Mine Önsöz (30); she can’t even choose what to drink when she’s on a night out. ‘AndI don’t let go of things easily’, she adds. She has been living in both Amsterdam and Istanbul since 2008. When she is in Istanbul for a longer period of time, like five months, then she just has to fly to Amsterdam once. And the other way around it’s the same: because of her work she stays in Amsterdam now for a few months, but at least once a month she flies to Turkey.

She feels at home in both cities, but if she’s honest: just a little bit more in Amsterdam. Because of the family and friends she has there. But the urge to try to live in Istanbul was just irresistible years ago. She had her own business as an event organizer, had a job in Istanbul for a few months in 2006, and felt that she belonged there too, just like she belonged in Amsterdam. Her sister Ebru (33) was yearning to live in the Turkish metropolis as well. Ebru, in her office on the outskirts of Istanbul: ‘I wanted to leave the Netherlands soon after secondary school, but my parents stopped me. They insisted I study first. I did, and I got settled in Amsterdam with a boyfriend.’ But the relationship didn’t last, she didn’t feel she could get ahead in her job for the Amsterdam municipality, and the old dream reappeared.

The conclusion of the sisters was only logical: start a bureau for event organizing together, have an office in Istanbul and work for both Dutch and Turkish clients. Four years ago they got on a plane and kept one home in Amsterdam, because they would have to visit the city often.

Mine and Ebru talk in superlatives when they speak about that first year in Istanbul. Ebru: ‘Everything was an adventure, even paying the bills. Sometimes we had no idea how things worked, but it didn’t matter, we had such a good time.’ Mine: ‘Everything was exciting and positive. Ebru and I are sisters and friends, we complete each other and had the time of our lives.’

‘I sometimes wondered where my home was’

The sisters worked very hard, were flying back and forth to Amsterdam and had a lot of visitors from the Netherlands, who they took from club to restaurant to lunch cafe. Mine: ‘Our business was doing well enough to make a living in two cities. That was a grand feeling really. But it was also exhausting. I travelled more than Ebru, sometimes up to three times a month. It was kind of a strange life. I sometimes wondered where my home was.’

Ebru Önsöz

After a year the intial excitement was gone and the Big Adventure feeling slowly subsided. Mine missed Amsterdam and longed for a rather quieter life, a bit less travel. Ebru felt the event organizing business wasn’t stable enough and wanted something that would give more security. They both found a new path: Mine kept the business and would operate more from the apartment in Amsterdam, Ebru found a business partner in packing materials in Istanbul.

But by doing that, they didn’t choose for either Istanbul or Amsterdam, but still for both cities. Ebru produces her merchandise in Istanbul but sells it to Dutch businesses, and therefore she needs to be in Holland often. She might even open an office there. Mine still organizes events in Istanbul when they come her way: last year she spent months in the city organizing a ‘birthday party bigger than ten weddings’. And she just started organizing medical trips to Turkey, not for groups but for individuals who want full attention. ‘When that part of my company gets bigger, I will again spend more time in Istanbul. I’ll rent an apartment there, that’s very easy to arrange in Istanbul.’

Mine and Ebru mainly point at their parents as the ones who gave them their talent for living in two worlds. Ebru: ‘As a family, we never had the wish to return to Turkey. Our parents sent us to schools with few immigrant children, so we could put down roots in the Netherlands as much as possible. That was very successful, we never felt we were living between two cultures. But we did go to Turkey on holidays, and at home we learned to speak proper Turkish. I think our parents did that just right. We are anchored in the Netherlands, feel secure there, and that’s why we can easily adapt to life in Istanbul.’

A reflection of her personality

Mine adds: ‘In fact, we only got to really know our Turkish side when we discovered a youth club in Amsterdam where many Turks came. Turkish parties with Turkish music, and we met people who knew life in Istanbul very well. We were intrigued by that. When we visited our nephews and nieces in Istanbul on holidays, we saw their exciting life. That’s what we wanted too!’

And now they have it. Ebru says in the life she lives now, she can perfectly use her ‘luggage of life’. ‘In my job at the Amsterdam municipality I could also have worked with both my identities, but in the Netherlands that usually means you get a job in ‘integration policies’. I do find that important, but it’s also work with a negative angle, focusing on problems and differences between people. In my current life, the quietness of the Netherlands and the excitement of Istanbul come together, the both sides I find in myself too.’

For Aygül Sonkaya that’s exactly the same. How she works – offering European quality for competitive Turkish prices – could be seen as a reflection of her personality. Aygül: ‘I wanted to combine Amsterdam and Istanbul to get closer to myself, and I sure succeeded in that.’

How to handle caps in Istanbul?

I had visitors this week: my Dutch friend Janet and her 11 year old daughter Eefke. When we walked down the road from my house to down-town Üsküdar for the first time, we saw a big plastic bottle hanging on a fence. I had some blue bottle caps in my bag, and I put them in the bottle. The rest of the week, we’ve been obsessed with caps.

Eefke (11) handling caps in Istanbul
Any tourist in Istanbul who pays attention to what is happening on the street instead of just focusing on tourist highlights, will sooner or later see them: empty ten litre water bottles hanging on fences, bridges, trees, just about everywhere all around the city. My neighbours have one too, at their front door. Inside the bottle are usually blue caps of empty water bottles. If you see it, you could have no clue whatsoever what that is about. So let me tell you.

The caps are collected by a recycling company. They turn them into plastic pallets that last for decades. Environmentally great, of course. But the ultimate great goal is that for every 150 kilograms of caps, somebody gets a wheelchair for free! I think it works like this, (but I didn’t check the details): people who need a wheelchair but have no money to buy one, can apply at the recycling company, and also people can collect these caps themselves and exchange them for a wheelchair if they manage to collect 150 kilos. (The comment section underneath is open to correct me if I’m wrong.)

Eefke just loved the idea. And we drank a lot of bottles of water, since it’s ridiculously hot and humid in Istanbul. We collected the caps and when we saw an empty bottle somewhere, Eefke ran to it and threw the caps in.

So, if you happen to be in Istanbul, now you know what to do with your bottle caps. Don’t throw them away screwed to your empty water bottle, but keep them and throw them into the empty receptacle bottles. So that when you’re running around in the city seeing as much of it as possible (the three of us didn’t do that, actually, we kept it nice and slow), you can make somebody else more mobile too!

Here are previous ‘How to’ posts about Istanbul:
* How to dress in Istanbul
* How to manage your money in Istanbul

How to manage your money in Istanbul

Loads of small change in your pocket, paying with notes in bigger shops and never, never paying with a 50 lira note in a taxi? Congrats, that’s the way to do it in Istanbul!

If you’ve passed the dealing-with-money-in-Istanbul test, you are probably not in the city for the first time. So often I see tourists messing things up. The first thing not to do is try to pay the exact amount of money in a bigger shop. Count all your small coins until you are able to come up with exactly 28,50tl, for example. Is there also a 50 lira note in your wallet? Use that one! With the change you get, you make the small businessmen happy.

Simit

Because, no, when you buy a simit, the seller usually doesn’t have change if you pay 1tl for a simit with a 50 or even 20 note. Or he does have it, but it’s just not practical. He’s happy with the coins you save up, like the lady or man at the public toilets (did you know they are usually very clean in Istanbul?), the water seller on the street, or the person that sells you corn or a shawl or polishes your shoes.

Now that I mention shoe polishing: don’t think the shoe polisher that just passed you and dropped his brush, dropped itt accidentally. They do it on purpose when they pass tourists. When you are kind enough to pick up the brush and give it back to the guy, he’ll insist on polishing your shoes, that’s how grateful he is. Then when he’s done, you will have to pay. So, just another stupid trick to do unfair business. Don’t fall for it. The next shoe polisher who tries it with me could see his brush end up in the Bosporus.

In general though, having your shoes polished in Istanbul is just a great idea. Depending on your shoes, it will cost between 5 and 10tl (and a little more if you get knee-length boots done). It’s such a joy to see experienced hands make your shoes shine again as if you had just bought them.

Ultra fast

Another group of small Istanbul entrepreneurs who are usually okay but sometimes try to pull dirty tricks, are…. exactly, taxi drivers. Never, I repeat never pay a taxi driver with a 50tl note. It looks a lot like a 5tl note. Some taxi drivers are ultra fast with changing the 50tl you just handed over with a 5tl note, and tell you with an innocent face: ‘Sorry sir, madam, you gave me 5, not 50’. Proof that you gave 50tl? Forget it.

One last tip: make sure you take both your card and money with you when leaving the ATM. Some give the money first, others your card, and losing your card because it’s been eaten by the ATM is never practical on a holiday, is it? Any requests on ‘How to…’ in Istanbul? Let me know at the address below, I’ll blog about it later. I already did the ‘How to dress in Istanbul’ post. Enjoy the city!